Translation Needed

The “Opinionator” blog at the New York Times is trying here, but there’s something not quite right. David Bornstein, in fact, gets off on the wrong foot entirely with this opening:

Consider two numbers: 800,000 and 21. The first is the number of medical research papers that were published in 2008. The second is the number of new drugs that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year.

That’s an ocean of research producing treatments by the drop. Indeed, in recent decades, one of the most sobering realities in the field of biomedical research has been the fact that, despite significant increases in funding — as well as extraordinary advances in things like genomics, computerized molecular modeling, and drug screening and synthesization — the number of new treatments for illnesses that make it to market each year has flatlined at historically low levels.

Now, “synthesization” appears to be a new word, and it’s not one that we’ve been waiting for, either. “Synthesis” is what we call it in the labs; I’ve never heard of synthesization in my life, and hope never to again. That’s a minor point, perhaps, but it’s an immediate giveaway that this piece is being written by someone who knows nothing about their chosen topic. How far would you keep reading an article that talked about mental health and psychosization? A sermon on the Book of Genesization? Right.

The point about drug approvals being flat is correct, of course, although not exactly news by now, But comparing it to the total number of medical papers published that same year is bizarre. Many of these papers have no bearing on the discovery of drugs, not even potentially. Even if you wanted to make such a comparison, you’d want to run the clock back at least twelve years to find the papers that might have influenced the current crop of drug approvals. All in all, it’s a lurching start.

Things pick up a bit when Bornstein starts focusing on the Myelin Repair Foundation as an example of current ways to change drug discovery. (Perhaps it’s just because he starts relaying information directly that he’s been given?) The MRF is an interesting organization that’s obviously working on a very tough problem – having tried to make neurons grow and repair themselves more than once in my career, I can testify that it’s most definitely nontrivial. And the article tries to make a big distinction between they way that they’re funding research as opposed to the “traditional NIH way”.

The primary mechanism for getting funding for biomedical research is to write a grant proposal and submit it to the N.I.H. or a large foundation. Proposals are reviewed by scientists, who decide which ones are most likely to produce novel discoveries. Only a fraction get funded and there is little encouragement for investigators to coordinate research with other laboratories. Discoveries are kept quiet until they are published in peer-reviewed journals, so other scientists learn about them only after a delay of years. In theory, once findings are published, they will be picked up by pharmaceutical companies. In practice, that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.

Now we’re back to what I’m starting to think of as the “translational research fallacy”. I wrote about that here; it’s the belief that there are all kinds of great ideas and leads in drug discovery that are sitting on the shelf, because no one in the industry has bothered to take a look. And while it’s true that some things do slip past, I’m really not sure that I can buy into this whole worldview. My belief is that many of these things are not as immediately actionable as their academic discoverers believe them to be, for one thing. (And as for the ones that clearly are, those are worth starting a company around, right?) There’s also the problem that not all of these discoveries can even be reproduced.

Bornstein’s article does get it right about this topic, though:

What’s missing? For a discovery to reach the threshold where a pharmaceutical company will move it forward what’s needed is called “translational” research — research that validates targets and reduces the risk. This involves things like replicating and standardizing studies, testing chemicals (potentially millions) against targets, and if something produces a desired reaction, modifying compounds or varying concentration levels to balance efficacy and safety (usually in rats). It is repetitive, time consuming work — often described as “grunt work.” It’s vital for developing cures, but it’s not the kind of research that will advance the career of a young scientist in a university setting. “Pure science is what you’re rewarded for,” notes Dr. Barres. “That’s what you get promoted for. That’s what they give the Nobel Prizes for. And yet developing a drug is a hundred times harder than getting a Nobel Prize. . .

That kind of research is what a lot of us spend all our days doing, and there’s plenty of work to fill them. As for developing a drug being harder than getting a Nobel Prize, well, apples and oranges, but there’s something to it, still. The drug will cost you a lot more money along the way, but with the potential of making a lot more at the end. Bornstein’s article goes off the rails again, though, when he says that companies are reluctant to go into this kind of work when someone else owns the IP rights. That’s technically true, but overall, the Bayh-Dole Act on commercialization of academic research (despite complications) has brought many more discoveries to light than it’s hindered, I’d say. And he’s also off base about how this is the reason that drug companies make “me too” compounds. No, it’s not because we don’t have enough ideas to work on, unfortunately. It’s because most of them (and more over the years) don’t go anywhere.

Bornstein’s going to do a follow-up piece focusing more on the Myelin Repair people, so I’ll revisit the topic then. What I’m seeing so far is an earnest, well-meaning attempt to figure out what’s going on with drug discovery – but it’s not a topic that admits of many easy answers. That’s a problem for journalists, and a problem for those of us who do it, too.

Derek Lowe, PhD, received his doctorate in organic chemistry from Duke University and pursued post-doctorate research in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship. He’s worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. He comments about drug discovery and the pharma industry at In the Pipeline.

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